December 10, 2018

From disable to enable: Summer camp shifts focus

The positive impact that summer camps have on Jewish identity is no secret, but a report released last year by the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) found that much progress remains in making this a viable opportunity for young people with special needs. 

To help move things forward, experts on disabilities convened in the fall to follow up on the report, released last May by the New York-based organization, and the FJC received a grant that led to the hiring of a director of disabilities.

The FJC survey found that approximately 2,340 to 2,590 special needs children, most of them with neurological disorders, are among the 75,000 who attend Jewish summer camps. While 93 percent of those parents reported being “satisfied” or “extremely satisfied” with their child’s camp experience, the study found that few camps are able to provide for children with physical disabilities. Right now, only 36 percent of Jewish camps offer a special needs program. 

“We were pleasantly surprised that there were more children with disabilities in summer camps than we had guessed,” said Abby Knopp, vice president of program and strategy at the FJC. “It affirmed our confidence in the field to meet the needs of Jewish kids with disabilities.”

Still, the organization, which works to boost the number of Jewish children that go to summer camp, is taking steps to help the numbers of campers with special needs rise. 

“About a third of camps have staff that have special education training and experience working with kids with disabilities,” Knopp said. “We’re incentivizing them to make the kind of hires they need at camp to serve the children.”

Among the study’s participants were 170 staff members from 124 camps around the United States, along with 141 campers and 262 parents. Knopp said FJC conducted the survey because, “there are not enough opportunities for children with disabilities in the summer and year round. We figured that we needed to start with a baseline to make it more accessible for them. We couldn’t build out until we knew what the baseline was.”

At Camp Ramah in California, the Conservative Jewish summer camp located in Ojai, Elana Naftalin-Kelman is director of the Tikvah program, which serves special-needs adolescents ages 11 to 18. One of the people interviewed for the study, she said that at Ramah, the biggest focus is on inclusion and offering campers with special needs the same experiences as others. 

“Camp inclusion is much more than building facilities. It’s about attitude changes. We include all people who want to be part of the community,” she said.

There is a higher counselor-to-camper ratio among Tikvah participants, as well as a buddy program that brings together a special-needs camper and a non-disabled, older camper. Kelman said that a crucial aspect of the program is training. 

“We do awareness training to make sure everybody at camp knows why we do what we do, and this is an important piece to the Ramah puzzle,” she said. “It’s an ongoing conversation that we’re constantly having with staff at all the camps. Inclusion is important for everybody, not just the kids with special needs.”

Michelle Wolf, a disability parent advocate and Journal columnist, has a 19-year-old son with special needs who attended the Tikvah program. While she was pleased with her son’s experience, she said that there is room for improvement at all summer camps. 

“My son uses a walker for short distances, and for longer distances he uses a wheelchair. At Camp Ramah, in the boys’ area, they had loose gravel, which is really hard to walk on with a walker or go over in a wheelchair. [So] they put down plywood,” she said. “The same thing happened at Camp JCA Shalom [in Malibu]. People create camps that look nice but aren’t accommodating for wheelchairs and walkers. The camps are not built with disabilities in mind.”

One of the issues highlighted by the FJC study was the fact that camps with facilities and services for those with special needs often don’t highlight that information in their brochures. 

Wolf also encouraged an attitude adjustment among counselors, employees and campers. 

“We need to create structures [that ensure] the typical campers aren’t afraid or freaked out by having kids like my son who has trouble talking and uses a walker,” she said. “Other campers need to be educated and have the general feeling of acceptance and openness throughout the camp. It needs to be a whole camp-wide attitude.”

The whole Jewish community, Knopp said, is responsible for including children with special needs and making them feel welcome. 

“Every Jewish child deserves an opportunity to have a great summer experience, she said. “It’s important that these kids have a place in Jewish camps. We all become much more cognizant of the variety of different kinds of people who live among us. The moral imperative goes for all of us.”